LONG BRANCH: City officials and local business owners say they feel the proposed zoning for West End could bring more development and revitalize the area.
"This zone overlay will lay the foundation to allow the buildings that were there for generations to be rebuilt and make West End more popular than it has been in the last 20 years," Long Branch Planning Board Chairman Ed Thomas said.
The Long Branch Council is prepared to vote on an ordinance that would create a C-3 West End Overlay District and permit both institutional and residential uses on the second floor of retail buildings at its April 28 meeting. The ordinance was introduced at the April 14 council meeting.
"Most of the areas that aren't developed and recently were developed aren't zoned for the use that they had," Thomas said. "All of West End is static right now because it's not zoned for the losses of the uses we had."
Thomas said the zoning change has been in the works since the city's Master Plan was implemented in 2010.
The zoning would also pave the way for New Jersey Repertory Company (NJ Rep) to build a new theater in the former home of the West End School.
NJ Rep would no longer need a use variance to build the theater if the new zoning is adopted.
"He's going to have a dinner theater, he will have a restaurant run by him internally, not an outside sidewalk restaurant where everybody can walk in, it will be part of his use," Thomas said.
Thomas said additional parking that would be shared between the theater and other West End businesses would be built in the area where there is currently an athletic field.
"We are going to promote the shared parking concept, if you are a nighttime business and your parking lot is available all day, we encourage people to let their parking be used when they are not using it and when some businesses close at night and their parking lots are available during the evening, we encourage people to come for dinner and spend the night and still have some parking available," Thomas said.
A fire destroyed a Brighton Avenue lot in 2012 that contained apartments above several stores, but because the area is currently zoned for commercial use only, what was once built would not be allowed under the current zoning. Anything that is currently occupying the second floor of West End's commercial structures, is grandfathered in from zoning years ago.
"Those uses can't be built under today's zoning," Thomas said. "This will allow those buildings to be rebuilt as they were. It's a significant area of West End."
While there are no formal plans before the planning board, Martin Grubman, the owner of the one of the buildings that was destroyed by the fire, said he is pleased with the change and would like to rebuild what was previously on his property.
"I would like to be able to rebuild what was there," Grubman said.
Another major development project is the lot than contains a vacant movie theater and three empty businesses to the south.
In 2013 Chabad of The Shore application to build synagogue on the former site of an old movie theater was denied by the board. Chabad then sued the board for the decision, but since that time, there have been discussions between the city and Chabad to come up with a compromise.
The new plan would include retail on the first floor and a religious use on the second floor, but no specific plans have been brought before the planning board yet.
"Whoever develops that land, can't use their first floor, the first floor must be retail," he said. "Whatever they want to do otherwise, will be on the second floor."
The parking lot behind the development would also be shared between businesses in the area and would likely be expanded in whatever type of plan is ultimately presented to the board.
Two pieces of land at the southwest corner of West End Avenue and Second Avenue could also be developed and Thomas said he felt the overlay district could also bring forth development on the empty lot next to Ron's West End Pub.
Mix Lounge and Food Bar co-owner Michael Bienz said he feels that the overall plan will be beneficial for the area, especially the addition of the theater.
"I think (NJ Rep) will bring a lot to the community," Bienz said. "I see the big picture and I can see everything working well in the area as long as the city is very straightforward with what does and does not comply."
Grubman also added that he felt that new zoning would limit uses that are not retail to the second floor of any new developments, especially the movie theater lot.
However, not everybody is in favor of the proposed zoning change.
"The problem with this whole process is that the public did not have the opportunity at the workshop meeting presentation and there's been no formal presentation at a council meeting," resident Vincent Lepore said at the April 14 council meeting. "The ordinance as I see brings up more questions than answers."
Lepore said he had no problems with the proposed theater but did take issue with what the zoning would allow to occur on the movie theater lot.
"It appears that driving force behind this ordinance appears to be litigation by an applicant that was denied before the (zoning board)," Lepore said. "I don't feel we should fashioning a remedy through an ordinance right now to accommodate ligation."
Patty Fisher Verrochi, an Oakhurst resident who said she owns a home on Second Avenue also spoke out against the zoning.
"I am very disappointed in the direction that Long Branch is heading and has been heading for many years," Verrochi said. "I really feel this overlay design is not what West End needs or should have and the council really needs to listen to what the people want and what Long Branch needs."
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